commentary Google announced the open-sourcing of its Chrome OS early this morning, and the search giant was very clear in explaining its target market for Chrome OS devices: this is a companion device, not a primary desktop machine. But is a Chrome OS netbook intrinsically better than a lowly iPod?
I think the Kindle would be a perfect fit for Chrome OS — it's an ebook reader and doesn't pretend to be an internet device, but could function as one
One needs to be clear on what Chrome OS does and doesn't do. This operating system will turn a perfectly functioning XP- or Linux-based netbook into, for all intents and purposes, an internet kiosk. And for many users that would sound perfectly acceptable.
It's not until you realise how much functionality is typically taken for granted but has now been pared out of the operating system that alarms bells start to sound.
The great internet hype machine has been claiming for many years that the web is the OS, and to my mind, Chrome OS is merely the logical conclusion of the Netscape webOS prophecy. But going cold turkey in terms of ditching all native applications in favour of cloud apps is a daunting prospect.
Take email for instance. Gmail is its usual great self on Chrome OS — no surprises there. This is Gmail where you have to use the web interface; there are no native clients, so say goodbye to Outlook, Eudora, Thunderbird or Evolution. Having your work and personal inboxes in one easy-to-use application just went out the window. You'll need one tab for work, and another for personal email. Chrome OS just made the most mundane everyday task twice as hard.
Twitter is even worse. Rightly or wrongly, an internet connection nowadays will often mean that a Twitter client is also started. But with Chrome OS, you will be stuck with the Twitter website itself, or a HTML clone of an application such as TweetDeck. Make no mistake, a HTML 5 TweetDeck/Seesmic clone will happen, but I am extremely pessimistic of its functionality and usefulness approaching that of the AIR-based or native clients.
Playing music on this device is not going to be fun in Australia. When queried on the topic of playing music, the lads behind Chrome OS told a roomful of Sydney journalists that it was dead simple to stream music from Pandora (a US-only service). Great if you are in the United States, but less than useless if you are anywhere else.
Chrome OS will be launching with a worldwide simultaneous launch at the end of next year, and plans to be internationalised to 40 languages — 39 of which I can guarantee will not be able to use Pandora as a music streaming solution.
Less fun for Australians will be Chrome OS's potential hunger for large amounts of connectivity. While I do think that having the OS check against signatures for signs of corruption, and in the case of malware, then downloading a fresh OS image and essentially reinstalling the OS to clear it of infection is a good idea; however, it needs real broadband, not what we currently have in this country.
The Chrome OS lads wouldn't give out numbers on the size of the operating system, but said it was 60 times smaller than a certain competing operating system (Windows), and had added debugging code to be stripped out to make it smaller. Taking their numbers, a typical Windows 7 install is around 8 gigs, and at 60 times smaller that comes out at around 120MB.
Let's be nice to Chrome OS and say it can halve that number by release — that means approximately 60MB will need to be downloaded to re-imagine a corrupt Chrome OS instance. A tiny number if you are in South Korea perhaps, but on a non-Telstra 3G connection you're going to be waiting a while, and if you are on Next G you probably just used up your quota. Of course, on a fairly normal home or office broadband connection with Wi-Fi you should be fine.
With that said, I can see a use for Chrome OS — just not in the places that Google does.
It would take quite a low price point for me to begin to consider removing the option of native applications. I may use the netbooks more often than not for pure internet-only activities, but doing away with the significant OS benefit of native applications, even if they are seldom used, better come with a more promising proposition than speed and lack of malware. A tiny Linux installation, which is what Chrome OS really is, accomplishes the same thing.
Where Chrome OS would have a significant impact is in devices with internet connectivity whose primary function is not that of a glorified internet kiosk. I think the Kindle would be a perfect fit for Chrome OS — it's an ebook reader and doesn't pretend to be an internet device, but could function as one, a very good one, should Amazon ever choose to loosen its shackles.
An ebook reader form factor that has the ability to quickly check email, play a couple of tunes while reading or maybe some flash gaming to keep the kids occupied appeals far more than a netbook masquerading as an ebook reader (one of the uses cited by Google today).
As I look at Chrome OS today, it has less functionality than an iPod Touch. When an MP3 player has more flexibility, functionality and is cheaper than a netbook, I'll pick the MP3 player every time. At least the MP3 player is able to play music and browse photos without demanding connectivity.